Education bill that would ease off tests clears Senate panel

Federally mandated testing would ease and Georgia’s share of federal education funding would increase under a long-overdue rewrite of the No Child Left Behind law advancing in Congress this week.

A U.S. Senate committee unanimously approved the compromise Thursday, which would reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act nearly eight years late.

“The momentum is definitely greater than any previous effort to reauthorize ESEA,” said Dane Linn, of the Business Roundtable, after Thursday’s vote.

The bill would give state and local governments greater flexibility in a variety of areas, including the way tests are used to hold teachers accountable.

The bill awaits action on the Senate floor. The House could not agree on a bill earlier this year, amid objections from Democrats and conservative Republicans, and it's unclear whether it would consider the Senate version or revive its own.

Even if the bill were to become law in its present form, Georgia laws would have to change to roll back the testing mandates in place here. Still, advocates for teachers, principals and other school employees see it as a positive development, especially in light of a local testing scandal that made national news.

“Our focus on testing and test scores has really warped and distorted our public educational system,” said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. “The Atlanta debacle is the worst example of that.”

Debate took place this week as sentences were handed down for Atlanta Public Schools educators in a wide-ranging cheating scandal, though the case did not come up in the Washington discussions.

“We de-emphasized testing, but that wasn’t because of APS,” said Georgia Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who serves on the education committee. “That was because testing was being overdone.”

But the bill does, in part, contain a response to cheating scandals in Atlanta and elsewhere: it encourages states and school districts to look at systems of merit-based pay for teachers using measures besides just students’ test scores. The convicted Atlanta educators were accused of falsifying test scores to win bonuses and pay raises.

In addition, Georgia will win a larger share of money for training and other programs for educators, because of the growth in the state’s population since the original No Child law passed in 2001.

The deal struck by Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., has managed to unite business groups, the nation’s governors, school administrators and teachers unions. In part, they are motivated by dislike for the patchwork of agreements between states and the federal government created since 2007, when lawmakers had been scheduled to rework the law.

As Congress has been mired in gridlock, the Obama administration offered waivers to Georgia and other states that allowed them to opt out of No Child’s requirements in exchange for implementing homemade accountability systems.

It’s unclear whether state officials would want to walk away from their own new requirements, such as using test scores as half of teachers’ evaluations, as Georgia plans to do.

“Some people don’t want testing,” said Angela Palm, policy director for the Georgia School Boards Association. But, she added, “people want teachers held accountable.”

The Obama administration and interest groups are still pushing changes. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan urged stronger accountability measures for the worst-performing schools.

National Education Association lobbyist Mary Kusler said her group wants the bill to get tougher on states to close the student achievement gap and do more to de-emphasize testing.

“I don’t ever remember ESEA passing out of committee unanimously,” Kusler said. “That sends a strong message for forward momentum and the fact that universally across the aisle they’re hearing what’s going on in communities, hearing what’s going on with students and they want to do something about it.”

Bob Farrace, spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said the legislation has the promise of returning “stability” to public education and also sending a message “that test scores are not the end all and be all. There are other ways to evaluate a school.”